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Pompous, pragmatic, flashy, shallow: no Old Master is in greater need of reviving for contemporary taste and rescuing from clichéd response than Peter Paul Rubens, the eloquent, erudite and now remote pioneer of the Flemish baroque. He has been out of fashion for generations. Van Gogh called him “superficial, hollow, bombastic”, and, to audiences reared on modernism’s introspection and angst, Rubens’ easy self-confidence was anathema.
Art history hardly helps. We know Rubens stands with Rembrandt at the pinnacle of 17th-century northern European painting, yet during the past three months at the National Gallery, while crowds marvelled at the humanity and authenticity of Rembrandt: The Late Works, the Rubens rooms languished empty. Choosing this moment to launch Rubens and his Legacy, the Royal Academy set itself a challenge which could have been magnificently met, but has resulted in the most misjudged Old Master show I have ever encountered.
The first disappointment is that there are only two major, significant works by Rubens here. Both are, however, spectacular enough to justify a visit, and the more famous, the Prado’s “The Garden of Love”, cuts to the quick about why Rubens even at his greatest resonates so imperfectly.
A deeply tonal work of gorgeous hues of pale skin and glossy silks, it depicts in an antique setting a measured game of seduction played out by a spiral of interlocking young, pretty figures in 17th-century dress. Everything is rounded, sensuous, suggestive: bared breasts, funnel-shaped cuffs, puffed sleeves, the curving buttocks and stomachs of flying putti who dart at dizzying angles among sinuous sculptures and rippling fountains.
It is a voyeur’s paradise — buoyant, celebratory, but touched with moral seriousness: an allegory of joys — bourgeois order, affluent display — that seem alien today. Lacking is a frisson of qualities we value more: the mystery, fragility, melancholy underlying a similar scene exhibited nearby, Watteau’s “The Pleasures of the Ball”. “So mellow, so tender, so soft and so delicious . . . this inscrutable and exquisite thing would vulgarise even Rubens,” Constable commented when he first saw these fugitive figures and broken brushstrokes.
Still more politically incorrect, though wonderful, is the show’s second Rubens masterpiece: the rare “Tiger, Lion and Leopard Hunt” from Rennes, which as a story of tumult and conflict between civilisation and nature nicely offsets the harmonies of “The Garden of Love”. Organised around the diagonal thrust of a rearing white horse whose turbaned rider is being dragged down by a tiger, while another muscly warrior prises open the mouth of an attacking lion and a leopard lies stabbed on the ground, it is a terrific example of how Rubens converged a boisterous realism of flesh and fur — apogee of the Netherlandish materialist tradition — with the commanding choreography of figures and orchestration of a rich palette, derived from Titian and Caravaggio.
It was this combination that introduced, on Rubens’ return to Antwerp in 1608 after eight years in Italy, a new extravagance, energy and grace that changed the course of northern European painting.
It is easy to trace the immediate lineage: Van Dyck’s bold elegance, seen here in the National Gallery’s comic “Drunken Silenus” and Washington’s dashing “A Genoese Noblewoman and Her Son”, and thus to the swashbuckling portraiture of Thomas Lawrence and Joshua Reynolds. But across the centuries, so vast and pervasive was the effect of Rubens’ bravura and dynamism that it is trickier to pinpoint precise influence.
Here, Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun’s “Self-portrait in a Straw Hat”, modelled on Rubens’ brilliantly lit, translucent, spontaneous “Portrait of Susanna Lunden” (sadly not in the show) affirms his impact on neoclassicism. Delacroix’s ebullient brushwork and colour — “Landscape with a Boar Hunt”, “The Triumph of Apollo”, vanquishing a fire-breathing serpent — announces Rubens’ contribution to romanticism.
And Renoir’s monumental-tender “Bather with Long Hair”, a Venus of the demi-monde rising from the Seine, proposes a connection between the baroque and impressionism, although Renoir reckoned Rubens “all surface”.
That is unfair. Even Rubens’ more absurd minor compositions are enlivened by human drama and moral nuance: the playful cabinet painting “Pan and Syrinx”, where a tanned fleshy god pursues a nymph cool as marble, yet glancing back ambivalently as she flees; “The Hermit and Sleeping Angelica”, whose ogling recluse hero fingering a drugged nude makes voyeurs of us all.
Surface, devolved into mere inflated rhetoric, was however what many 19th-century salon painters did take from Rubens. Typical of once cultish but now deservedly forgotten examples from across Europe here are “The Victory of Light over Darkness” by Hans Makart, byword for Viennese empty opulence; Belgian Antoine Joseph Wiertz’s “The Greeks and Trojans Fighting over the body of Patroclus”, which even the catalogue admits is a “monstrous creation”, and Victorian academic shocker William Etty’s pile-up of torpid nudes, “Apotheosis of the Duke of Buckingham”.
An installation arranged by sensibility — “Violence”, “Lust”, “Elegance”, “Poetry” — as if Rubens were a painter by emotional numbers, further confuses clarity about influence. “Power”, for example, showcases Etty alongside a historical potpourri ranging from poor instances of expressionism (Oskar Kokoschka’s wartime shipwreck picture “Loreley”) to ancien régime frivolities such as “Aurora on her Chariot” by Charles Le Brun.
Why have so many mediocrities been dredged out of storerooms? Rather than make a case for Rubens, they bore us rigid, and distance us further from his virtuoso manner and lively mind. And where, instead, is a focus on the marvellous paintings which could persuade us why Rubens matters? The “Het Steen” autumn vista which shaped English landscape painting from Constable on; the sumptuous crimson-gold narrative of triumph, compassion and eroticism “Samson and Delilah”; the lustrous nudes and delicate children in the allegory “Peace and War”: any of these, all from the National Gallery, would have added life to this show.
Rubens and his Legacy comes from Bozar, Brussels, and perhaps to compensate for its shortcomings the Royal Academy has added a coda, inviting painter Jenny Saville to curate a small section considering Rubens’ significance in the past half-century. I have never been persuaded by Saville’s outsize compositions of multiple fragmented figures — one is here — but as a curator she is superb. She traces the simple but powerful idea that “flesh was the reason why oil painting was invented”, as de Kooning put it, and hers is by a stretch the freshest, most coherent gallery. Prioritising artists worthy to be in conversation with Rubens — Bacon, Freud, de Kooning, Twombly, Cecily Brown — Saville tantalisingly demonstrates the potential of a theme squandered through the rest of this unfortunate exhibition.
‘Rubens and his Legacy: Van Dyck to Cézanne’, Royal Academy, London, to April 10. royalacademy.org.uk
Photographs: Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid; The Gallery Collection/Corbis; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister
Slideshow photographs: Museo Nacional Del Prado, Madrid; Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna; Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Gemaeldegalerie Alte Meister; Musée des Beaux Arts, Rennes; The Gallery Collection/Corbis; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Florence; Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam